In the first volume of his award-winning memoir Māori Boy, Witi Ihimaera told the stories of his childhood — of growing up Māori in rural New Zealand. His new book Native Son is about the making of the man and the writer. This extract picks up Witi’s story at the end of his fifth form year.
At the end of 1959, aged fifteen, I sat School Certificate. I required two hundred marks from four subjects to pass, and that’s what I managed. One mark less, and my life might have been entirely different.
The pass may have been the minimum, but as my headmaster Jack Allen said to Dad, shaking his hand vigorously as if he didn’t quite believe it, “Congratulations, Tom, well done.” Not my hand, Dad’s.
“You’d think Dad sat the examination,” I said to my mother, Julia, as yet another local, queueing up, slapped him on the back.
“Good on you, Tom,” he said.
At that time, Te Karaka District High School was a rural school, which, looking back from the present, existed on the faraway edge of the decile, but a pass was a pass no matter how hopeless the hōri or hick the town. Fifth-form School Certificate was as high as you could go as there was no sixth form. Anyway, that would be pushing your luck. Therefore, despite the usual ambitions I had in common with other boys, such as becoming a jet fighter pilot (we did have one in the family, my uncle Baden), my reality was that I would leave school and help Dad on the farm like Keith and David Wright on the landholding next to ours.
To be frank, although I had not taken to agricultural work as to the manner born, I was fond of farming. I don’t know why as there was nothing romantic about working the land. Season after season, doing the same repetitive work. Buying the cheapest stock and hoping that cattle grown on sparse grass would bring maximum gain at the annual sales. In summer, mustering the sheep to move from one paddock to the other. Watching cattle dying in times of drought, that was hard to bear.
Or losing lambs even after we’d pulled them out of their mothers. We’d blow into their nostrils to help them breathe the chill air only to feel the slight shiver in their bodies, the sign of impending death.
Then there were the usual chores that my sisters and I had to do before we caught the school bus. We were up at five to light the fire, get the stove going and lay the table for breakfast. My sisters Kararaina, Tāwhi and Viki squabbled over who would take our baby brother Derek from his cradle, change his nappy and feed him.
Meanwhile, morning and night, I shared milking, chopping wood, the occasional slaughtering of an animal for its mutton, and other heavier farm duties with my cousins Ivan, Miini, Kiki, Tom and Uenuku (Banana). And when we returned home from school in the afternoons, there were always other jobs to do: fencing, boiling offal for the dogs, daubing maggot-infested sheep with tar or tending the vegetable garden. Sometimes we did the work under instruction from Dad, Uncle and the grizzled old farmhand, Bulla, who had turned up one day looking for work — and stayed. The three men were weaning us from their care, waiting for us to do the tasks whether they did or didn’t ask for them to be done.
Constantly balancing profit and loss put paid to any notion that farm life was easy. However, there was something about the physical nature of farming that appealed to me. There was also the ambition of working beside Dad and Uncle Puku to raise Maera Station out of its dire financial situation; all our livelihoods depended on that. Actually, my mother was probably more committed to the farm than we were, and it wasn’t a fantasy for her. She loved the life, really loved it, and because she toiled hard on making the farm pay for itself, my sisters and I tried our best to make that a reality for her.
When Dad bought the landholding, nothing had been done to maintain the quality of grass, and even the pasture we already had was being encroached upon by huge swathes of gorse. I dreamt of modernising the farm so that it was the Māori equivalent of the Ponderosa. I pestered Dad and Uncle Puku about topdressing, upgrading the shearing shed and bulldozing a wide access road to the “Other Side” where the stock was; Bulla, sitting on his horse and rolling himself a cigarette, would listen on, amused.
I must have been an irritant to Dad as he already had these ideas himself. Possessing no capital, however, he maintained the farm the hard way with antiquated machinery and — until that bulldozer eventually materialised — shifted the stock along the narrow track and herded the animals one by one across the swing bridge. Sometimes sheep slipped from the track and, if they got jammed on the bridge, I would clamber across their backs to get them flowing again. One misstep and I would be over the sides falling onto the rocks below.
Every summer, our holiday was to go shearing. Had it not been for the extra income shearing brought in, I don’t think Mum and Dad could have kept the farm solvent. Do you know the story about the Māori farmer and the Texan farmer? The Texan farmer, in trying to explain the size of his ranch, says, “If I travel from sunup to sundown I still won’t have reached the end of my farm.” The Māori farmer sympathetically offers, “Yes, I used to have a car like that.” The implication was that the Māori farmer had improved his lot but, in our case, we still had that car.
My grandmother Teria may have helped Dad to buy the farm, but the capital we put into it was our capacity to work hard and the equity was our sweat.
My best subject was English — perhaps that was a portent of things to come. But even though I had vowed to write a book about Māori that would be put in front of every school student in New Zealand, English really wouldn’t get me anywhere in life, would it? I had to get real, so, following my School Certificate success, I thought I should begin my career as a farmer.
My parents had other ideas. So did my grandfather, Pera Punahāmoa. I became aware of his plans when, the following year, just before I turned sixteen, he started to come up to Maera Station to talk to Mum and Dad. Regularly. To look me over.
Until dogs savaged them to death, Mum had a flock of beautiful Muscovy ducks. My sisters and I, enticing them with breadcrumbs, were trying to show them the way to the new dam that we had built against the prospect of future drought. I learnt then why ducks cock their heads sideways when you try to get their attention; they can’t see you when you are leading them from the front. Finally, however, we got the flock to the water and then the trouble was they wouldn’t get out. That’s when I saw my grandfather’s car arriving. Again.
Pera and I had never got on well — I think he tolerated me. I wasn’t one of those grandchildren who ran to him crying “Tolo! Tolo!”, the affectionate nickname he was known by. Nor had I distinguished myself on the sports field. Instead, I held back rather than rushed forward to him, cocking my head and looking at him with my Anatolian sideways-smile. Maybe I got that smile from our ducks.
I therefore don’t blame my grandfather that he had his favourite mokopuna and that I wasn’t one of them. After all, I was not, well, heroic. Have you ever come across any instance in mythology where the least masculine and muscled boy is the gladiatorial hero? Nah. Not that I minded, I already had my champion. She was my grandmother Teria and, until she had died four years earlier, I had no need of her consort.
I know this sounds cynical but, following my School Certificate success, Pera must have seen a cloud of flies swarming above my head and, at long last, come to see what the fuss was about.
Noticing Pera and Dad in kōrero I sensed that my future was being deliberated on and, where Grandad was concerned, that would mean only one thing.
Maybe I wouldn’t join the sports champions that our family usually bred, but I had shown I had intelligence and perhaps there was a role for me in his favourite portfolio, the Mormon Church. After all, Pera was a Māori Abraham, having a reputation to sustain. He had joined the church in 1937 and since then, with him as our kin chief, our family had become synonymous with Mormonism; the Whaanga and Smith whānau of Nuhaka and the Going family of Northland were others.
Some Māori had achieved extra lustre by sending their children on missions to the United States. Others enticed the young American missionaries to marry their daughters and stay in Aotearoa.
Not only that, but my grandfather held the Melchizedek priesthood, the highest order of spiritual governance in the church. He particularly embraced the notion that Māori were descendants of Laman and were one of the ten tribes of Israel who had dispersed from the Americas when Moroni farewelled them in ad 421 into the Pacific. It was easy for him to switch from being Ringatū to being Mormon, given the Māori–Israelite connection. He believed that the Māori therefore had a legitimate claim to the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. We also had the duty to share God’s favour and divine protection with those nations of the earth who were still in darkness, the remainder of the descendants of Noah. There were now around 20,000 Mormons in New Zealand attempting to build here a Mormon utopia.
Pera was impelled to look the way of his many mokopuna as he had only just completed an assignment in the Labour Mission Project: building a temple and the associated co-educational Church College of New Zealand — CCNZ — on 215 acres at Tuhikaramea, near Hamilton, in the Waikato.
That’s where I came in.
From the very beginning of Mormonism in Aotearoa, Latter-day Saint families desired to send their high-school-age children to a church school. In this they were no different to Roman Catholics with daughters for St Mary’s or sons for St Andrew’s, or Anglicans sending their children to ivy-clad brick buildings that replicated Rugby or Eton. Mormon families were aided in the dream by Matthew Cowley and, more importantly, David O McKay.
In some respects the college (and temple) could be regarded as McKay’s vanity project. The great cause of providing for the descendants of the lost iwi of Israel was clearly on his mind. The temple was the first built in the Southern Hemisphere and, floodlit at night, you could see it from miles away. You wouldn’t have been the only car driver who asked, “What is that thing?” It looked like a celestial wedding cake with phosphorescent icing, piercing the sky.
Both Cowley and McKay had been intimately involved with New Zealand since the 1920s, and McKay was now president of the church. When the Mormon Maori Agricultural College (for boys only) succumbed to the 1931 Napier earthquake, LDS members had pleaded for something to replace it. Seventeen years later, in 1948, McKay had said yes to the new building project but, this time, it was to be a co-ed institution. Given that he was also resident prophet, seer and revelator, who would argue with him?
Central to this story is that the church based its rationale for a college in Polynesia on a somewhat mind-blowing conceit. McKay had looked at the New Zealand education system and decided it wasn’t doing the best job for the Māori people, especially Mormon Māori. Only about one Māori student in twenty left school with School Certificate compared with thirty per cent of Pākehā students; fewer Māori stayed on to do two years in the sixth form. Having had a career in education as principal of the church’s Weber Stake Academy, McKay knew the church could do better. He equivocated on the vision only once when, despite volunteer labour, building costs began spiralling out of control. But in a visit to New Zealand in 1955, he was persuaded by the fervour of his flock.
“We will not curtail the project,” he said. “We will enlarge it.”
High schools were built in Tonga and Sāmoa too, and the three schools were administered by a Mormon Pacific Board of Education under Wendell B Mendenhall. The church loved the people of the Pacific, and they loved their church back.
By the time the co-ed institution was dedicated, a small town called Temple View had risen to service the complex. My grandfather was all fired up about some of his grandchildren attending. The field had been tilled, now seeds had to be planted for the harvest. In the college’s first two academic years, 1958 and 1959, my cousins Ivan and Cissie joined 342 inaugural students. They were the first and second eldest grandchildren, but by 1960 Ivan had dropped out; I don’t know what happened with Cissie.
As the third eldest grandchild I was the next in the queue. Perhaps I would become the family’s ring-bearer, but no way was I made of Mormon clay.
When Mum and Dad became Grandad’s proxies I could see from their bright eyes that they were hearing angels blowing on trumpets and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing hymns of welcome. Wrestling with so many issues, mainly, self-doubt and, even more, self-worth, made me deaf to the clarion calls.
I decided to head Pera off at the pass. I was joined in my effort by my sisters. Living so closely together, we didn’t want to foreclose on Dad’s dream and Mum’s desire to make our lives on the farm.
“I don’t care what plans Grandad might be dreaming up for me,” I told Dad, “but I’m not going to go to the college.” We were dosing sheep at the time. Lift the head, into the sheep’s mouth goes the drenching gun, squeeze. “Nor, afterwards, am I going to take a year off as a missionary and proselytise among the pagans. You need me here and this is where I’m staying.”
Cross, Dad took the drenching gun from me. “Your uncle Puku and I,” he began, “and Bulla, can manage without you.”
“I’m not asking you,” I answered. “I’m telling you.”
But Dad had made up his mind. Imagining the sheep as me. Lifting up my head. Take your medicine, son.
I thought Bulla, the farmhand, might be on my side, but he wasn’t. “Maybe you should go out into the world, young fella,” he said to me as we were fencing one day.
I’ve always needed an older male adviser to ask the harder questions that I couldn’t ask Dad — or Uncle Puku at the time — about being male and what a man was. You know, the “What’s the meaning of life?” kind of questions that plague you when you’re transitioning from boyhood to manhood. Some of those questions involved candid pātai about love, sex and male performance and, while Bulla sometimes answered and sometimes didn’t, at least he listened.
“You won’t get your answers here on the farm,” he would say in the end.
I thought I had won until my mother got in on the act. I actually assumed she would want me to stay at Maera Station too. After all, I was her first-born, the only thing she had ever owned, and she never liked to let me go. But I had misread the signs — always an easy thing to do with Mum. When I had seen her simmering I’d assumed that she was dead against the idea — at the time she wasn’t Mormon, although she joined later.
But one day I arrived home from school to find her waiting for me, putting my good clothes out for me on my bed. White shirt, tie, coat and trousers — and she had even polished my shoes.
Mum was looking at the walls just above the headboard and along the bed itself, where I had been scribbling with a pencil. Stories, ideas, random thoughts, small illustrations, some pencilled while I was half asleep. “Your father and I painted the walls white to make your room bright,” she said. “What are all these marks on it?”
“I dream about things,” I answered. “I write them down.” Then, “I thought you knew. You’re in them.”
Mum looked at me in a strange way, disconcerted at the idea of my cocooning myself, as if in the middle of a spider’s web. “Get changed,” she said. “You’re coming into Gisborne with me.”
My mother was thirty-eight, a handsome woman with the strong, open looks of her Ngāti Porou ancestry. She had a habit of lifting her face to the light, which threw her high cheekbones into relief and made you aware of her eyes. Sometimes it was as if her face was a mask and there was somebody else looking out at you from behind it.
Whenever Mum said “Get changed”, it wasn’t a request. You did it. And if the appointment was important, Mum always dressed formally: hat, coat, gloves and stockings with the seams perfectly straight. Today she was in unremitting black as if she was going to a funeral. Driving down from the farm she was very silent.
We arrived in Gisborne and parked the car outside a handsome colonial house in Cobden Street. The residence bespoke the sturdy merchant prosperity that Gisborne’s wealth was built on: diamond window panes glinted and flashed in the light, the porch was wide, and dark green shrubs lined the walkway to it. I made my way to the front gate.
“No, not that way,” Mum said. Instead, she led me to a back door and rang the bell. The sound echoed away, away, away into the interior of the house. When the door finally opened, a Māori servant was there. Her name was Maria or Mariah; I will call her Maria.
“Mrs Ogilvy is expecting you,” Maria smiled.
We were shown through a hallway into a back parlour. There we waited until finally a thin, wan, Pākehā woman arrived.
“Why, hello, Julia, and is this your son?”
I didn’t expect what happened next. After all, the mother I had always known was strong and self-confident, always on the front foot, world watch out. Instead, she became somebody else. She sat with knees together, holding her handbag on her lap, and eyes downcast. “Yes, Mrs Ogilvy.”
“He’s your eldest?”
“Yes, Mrs Ogilvy.”
Now, I don’t want you to think of Mrs Ogilvy unkindly. After all, she had accepted my mother into her employ when Mum had first come, as a teenage girl, to Gisborne from Uawa to find work. My mother always said she was very happy to work for the family. Throughout the conversation, Mrs Ogilvy addressed questions to my mother and she proffered the answers with a “Yes, Mrs Ogilvy” or a “No, Mrs Ogilvy.”
I couldn’t understand why Mum had become so subservient. It was almost as if she had disappeared and somebody else who looked like her and talked like her had taken her place. This was not my mother, but some other passive person — and I didn’t like it.
And not once did Mrs Ogilvy address a question to me.
The visit didn’t last long. There was no doubt who was mistress and who was servant. Had it not been for the large clock ticking in the hallway, I would not have known that we had been there for half an hour. My mother kept diminishing, becoming a koiwi, a person without substance or shadow.
Finally, Mrs Ogilvy said, “Thank you for coming, Julia. Do take the boy to the kitchen where Maria will have some tea and cake for you.” She offered Mum an envelope with some money in it. “For achieving his School Certificate,” she said.
“I don’t take money from people I don’t know,” I told her.
Mrs Ogilvy paused, only momentarily. “Do with the gift as you see fit,” she said to Mum.
Later, following afternoon tea, my mother pressed the envelope on me. I scrunched it up and threw it on the pavement. As we were driving home, I became angry at Mum. I rounded on her and spoke sharply. “Why did you take me to see that lady?” I asked.
What was her reply? “Now you know why I have come to agree with your grandfather,” she began. “You must continue your education, son, I don’t want you to be a servant to anyone, man or woman, Māori or Pākehā. Your father and I didn’t raise you to help us on the farm — thank you for offering, but no thank you.”
Not long after that, she began to leave pens scattered around my bedroom. They replaced my pencils and were a reward, I suppose, and an acceptance of what I would do with them. And the web of words I wrote on the walls began to spread throughout the room.
My mother, my grandfather Pera Punahāmoa and, finally, Dad, ambushed me with their ambition.
They put me back on track for what was to become a career in literature although, of course, none of us knew that at the time. And it wasn’t a vocation that followed a straight line; rather, the line would eventually turn out to be as crooked as te waewae whakamuri o he kurī. For instance, in the beginning everyone thought my profession lay in the field of classical music.
Some subtle blackmail was also at play. I hadn’t quite paid off the piano which my grandmother, Teria, bought for me; my parents and grandfather let me know that if I agreed to carry on my education they would wipe the debt. A clever move that, playing on my indebtedness, and I could see that Grandad thought he had me in his pocket.
“Teria should never have bought that piano for you,” he said.
Throughout our relationship the instrument was not a piano at all. Whenever Grandad saw it, he saw an elephant and, if angry with me, he would always bring it up. Ironically, my mother had also, initially, been irritated about the piano. That is, until I clearly showed some adolescent skill in performance and developed a scholarly interest in music which was at odds with my farmboy aspirations. Assuredly my musical talent, rather than literature, was the driving force behind her wanting me to go to the college; I never asked her.
In the end, I caved in. To be frank, I was warming to the idea.
But nothing is ever easy. I didn’t know until later that Mum and Dad, already hard-pressed for cash, were paying for my board and tuition at £40 per term. There were also the costs of purchasing the distinctive school uniform — turquoise blue blazer sporting the beehive as emblem for being industrious, and long dark dress uniform trousers — and my school texts. Yet more debt for me to pay back at some point.
Worse, the college required a medical examination as part of its entry procedures.
Dad took me to see Dr Bowker. Everything was going fine as he put stethoscope to my chest, checked my eyesight, asked me to poke out my tongue and tapped my knees. Then he asked me to remove my trousers and underpants.
Such a simple request you might think, but you freeze. And something that has been waiting in the shadows of the surgery blinks, just to let you know it is there.
Ssshh, Witi. You don’t want anybody to find out what happened to you, do you?
Sweat pops on your brow. And then something frightening rushes across the floor, rising out of the nightmare world of your dreams.
How sweet it was for me to break your arse.
Rearing above you, the memory poises to strike, the jaws widen and you look into the throat of darkness.
“No,” I said to Dr Bowker.
My heart was pounding and I could hardly breathe. I pushed him away and he stepped back, surprised. He went to the door and I heard him talk to Dad.
“Would you like to come in to the room, Tom?”
He thought that I was shy and that with Dad there I would feel more comfortable. But it wasn’t shyness, I had no problem showing myself. But not to him.
“Perhaps you can ask Witi to remove his clothes.”
This was a Passover I would not survive. If Dr Bowker looked at me, inspected me, he might find out what had happened to me four years previously. And even if there weren’t any signs physically, my dear father would know — fathers always knew.
“Please, Dad, don’t come anywhere near me.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Dad scolded.
There was no other choice. Grimly, “I’m not going to the college,” I said.
I was already heading for the door. I had to get out of there, I would keep my secret.
Dr Bowker stopped me. “It’s all right, Witi.”
He looked at Dad, concerned, and then they nodded at each other, man to man.
“I will sign the medical certificate, Tom,” he said.
Witi was the first Māori to publish both a book of short stories and a novel. His best-known novel is The Whale Rider, which was made into an internationally successful film in 2002. His first book, Pounamu, Pounamu, has not been out of print in the 40 years since publication. He has also had careers in diplomacy, teaching, theatre, opera, film and television.
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